16 September 2012

Scrutiny: Holownia & Starnino

A publisher and an author examining the fine print on a book contract? No, nothing like that. Thaddeus Holownia took this photo of me and Gaspereau Press author Peter Sanger a few weeks ago at Sanger’s home in South Maitland. We were planning the production of a catalogue for an exhibition of Holownia’s photographs opening at the UNB Arts Centre this coming Friday in Fredericton, NB. The show, entitled ‘Water’ is a sort of retrospective which gathers photographs from across Holownia’s career which deal with that subject. Sanger wrote a catalogue essay, which was be printed, with its French translation, here at Gaspereau Press and will appear under Holownia’s Anchorage Press imprint. In his essay, Sanger writes:

The subjects of all of Holownia’s photographs, especially those in this exhibition, are elemental in substance and particular in happenstance. […] The theme of water is new in its emphasis in this exhibition, old in its presence in Holownia’s work. It has often appeared as one of the images in Holownia’s series of photographs devoted explicitly to other subjects. By choosing photographs from a body of work extending over thirty years, therefore, Holownia emphasizes a latency.

The show opens at 5:00 p.m. on Friday 21 September and runs until 22 October 2012. The gallery is located in Memorial Hall on the University of New Brunswick campus.

In the photograph above, Sanger and I are discussing the printing methods employed to produce a sheet from The Nuremberg Chronicle (c.1493), which just happened to be resident in South Maitland.

Also on the press this week is Lazy Bastardism, a book which collects essays and reviews by Carmine Starnino, one of Canada’s most outspoken literary critics. We’ve published two volumes of Starnino’s poetry, but this is the first time we have issued his critical work. Starnino’s first book was published the same year we launched Gaspereau Press. About that time I heard him being interviewed on a national CBC Radio program, talking about poetry with a sharp-tongued, sharp-minded passion. As I listened, Starnino’s polemic (for he was much more polemical in his early days) made me by turns angry and amused, but it never failed to engage me. I knew I had to meet this guy, and eventually, I did (over a drink at Ottawa’s Manx Pub with John Metcalf, as a matter of fact).

I have always felt that blunt, direct, fearless commentary is as essential to a literary culture as similarly feisty journalism is to a free and open society. I’ve no time for name-calling or mere meanness, but I cannot take the side of any argument which argues for the suppression of open debate. Critics will always have their weaknesses, their favourites and their bugbears, and they will slip-up, from time to time, and over-salt their broth. But between those moments they have much to teach us, starting with the importance of bothering to pay attention to what others are writing and expressing an opinion about it. As Starnino writes by way of introducing his collection:

One day you sit down for a beer with a buddy and you say, ‘you know what? I can’t read x anymore’, and he says, ‘why?’ and you say, ‘this is why’. That is the seed of criticism. That’s where it starts. And the tradition would not exist – poetry itself would not exist – if those conversations did not happen, and if poets did not take the time to turn those conversations into well-written, well-argued prose.

If we feel that literary culture is important, we need to roll up our sleeves and engage those around us. Hearing someone say ‘This book disappointed me,’ or ‘This poem didn’t, in the end, succeed,’ is so much preferable, even if I disagree with their conclusion, to the bland, polite applause or (worse) resounding silence with which most contemporary poetry is met.


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